Philly officer’s death on duty goes against recent trend

 Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey asks for prayers and support for the family of slain police officer Robert Wilson. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey asks for prayers and support for the family of slain police officer Robert Wilson. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The shooting death of Philadelphia Police Officer Robert Wilson III Thursday marks the first time since 2009 that an on-duty officer was fatally shot in the city.

“He was one of our very, very best, no question about it,” Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said at a Friday press conference. “We’re all in shock, and we’ll all suffer this loss for a very, very long period of time.”

While on duty, Wilson stopped at a GameStop store on Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia to buy a gift for his son, who turns 9 on Monday. Near the counter, two young men announced that they were robbing the store. 

Wilson tried to prevent the robbery, and a gun battle broke out with the 8-year department veteran  attempting to defend himself as bullets flew at him. One bullet struck him in the head.

No customers or employees were injured in the incident. Police said while shots rang out, the suspects, who are brothers, used cardboard poster boards as cover from Wilson’s fire. 

The brothers were armed with semi-automatic weapons that police said were obtained on the streets. 

After the episode, one of the accused took off his hoodie and re-entered GameStop, police said, impersonating a customer. He was quickly discovered and arrested. 

The suspects, who have been identified as Ramone Williams, 24, and Carlton Hipps, 29, have criminal records, prosecutors said. Hipps was released from prison in 2009. The two have been charged with murder, attempted murder and robbery. 

Philly initiatives have helped stem police fatalities, assaults

While Wilson’s death has shaken Philadelphia’s police department, the tragedy comes at a time when overall assaults against officers have been steadily dropping. And shooting injuries and deaths continue to be less prevalent, as well. 

The last time the FBI crunched the numbers on law enforcement assaults nationwide, it found that nearly as many police officers died in shootings as they did in accidental car accidents.

In Philadelphia, all types of assaults against police officers have been steadily declining since 2008.

Though many dozen officers have been injured in shootouts, that number, too, has been dropping.

Ralph Taylor, professor of criminal justice at Temple University, said in the past several years, the city department has introduced several new, less-aggressive response initiatives.

“One of those has been how officers engage with, and respond to, mentally ill persons they encounter on the streets,” Taylor said. “That could very well be partially responsible for this drop.”

Experts also point to better training, including improved methods of de-escalation, and better body armor technology as other contributing factors.

The FBI report highlights two points that are undeniable: Assaults on police officers happen between midnight and 2 a.m. more than any other time.

And what it calls “personal weapons,” that is, hands, fists and feet, are used in 80 percent of all assaults against police officers.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal